Until I met Taylor Maitland, my day had not been going at all well. The phone call from my brother, Mike, had left me with tense shoulders and a pain in the back of my head that even two Motrin hadn’t helped ease. Damn him, why does he keep getting into these scrapes then leaning on me to get him out of them? I might be his big brother, but shit… There was only a year between us, yet when he pulled this kind of crap I felt the maturity gap was wider than the Grand Canyon.
In debt, again. Why couldn’t he stay away from Vegas? What the hell was it that compelled him to throw his money away time and time again on anything he considered a ‘sure bet’ when nine times out of ten it was anything but? And why did I feel compelled, each and every time, to bail him out of trouble? Well, not compelled exactly, more like forced…but the thought of him ending up in jail or getting the shit beaten out of him by the sharks that loaned him the money in the first place—that I couldn’t handle.
But this time, Mike…jeez, I don’t know where I’m going to get that kind of money. It was bad enough when he’d asked for a couple of grand here and there. I wasn’t a millionaire by any stretch of the imagination. I’d been careful, investing in sure things, and I’d made money over the years. Plus, I had a decent paying career as a real estate agent. I’ve been lucky, I guess—even in a bad economy I survived, and now that things were turning around, I was doing well— But not well enough to come up with a hundred grand before the end of the week!
“Please, Jer…” His whining voice resonated in my head as I remembered his plaintive phone call of earlier. “Please help me. You wouldn’t let anything bad happen to your little brother, would you? It’d kill Mom.”
No it wouldn’t. Not our mom. Not after having survived the abuse of the man she’d once called ‘husband’― our father, Henry scum-of-the-earth Peterson. No, the knowledge of Mike’s incessant need to throw his money away and amass crippling debts wouldn’t kill her, but finding out that her son was maybe a chip off the old rotten block would not exactly make her day either.
“Fuck, Mike—a hundred thousand dollars?” I’d croaked when he’d finished giving me a near aneurism. “How in hell did you manage to do that?”
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“Not your fault? Whose was it then? The guy standing behind you at the craps table whispering in your ear, ‘go for it, Mike…you have winner written all over your ass’?”
“It’s not funny, Jerry.”
“You’re right, it’s not funny. Where d’you suppose I’m going to get my hands on a hundred grand by the end of the week?”
“Well, you don’t exactly have to find a hundred grand…”
“Good, because I haven’t the first clue where to look.”
“Oh, come on, Jer. You could cash some of those bonds. You have stock you can sell.”
“Not by the end of the week,” I’d barked at him. “And don’t think just because I have something put away for a rainy day, or maybe paying for a nursing home when Mom gets weak and feeble—”
Jeez, why did I say that? Mom would kill me if I even suggested she spent her golden years in a nursing home.
“You’re just trying to make me feel bad.”
“Is it working? Because you should feel bad, Mike. This is just so totally irresponsible. You’re already into me for twenty thousand. Lucky for you I’m not a loan shark. You’re my brother and I love you, or you might have already ended up with a broken arm or leg…or neck.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry.” He didn’t sound sorry, more like frustrated. “Anyway, like I said, you don’t have to front the hundred thou, you just have to act as surety for it.”
“What? You mean someone else is going to pay off your debt to the tune of a hundred thousand dollars on my surety. Who is this imbecile?”
“A friend of a friend.”
“You have a friend?”
“Ha, ha. Well, he’s not exactly a friend, more an acquaintance.”
“A gambling buddy.” I let out a heavy sigh. “Okay, what do I have to do?”
“Uh, meet the guy. He’ll call you for the appointment, go over the details.”
Details. Yeah, God only knows what that might mean. “And may I ask how you intend to repay this loan? Might I suggest you start by selling that overpriced car of yours? That way you won’t be able to drive to Vegas!”
His sigh of exasperation suddenly changed to a sharp intake of breath.
“What’s wrong now?”
“Nothing, but I have to go.”
“Mike, what’s going on?”
“Nothing, just wait for Taylor to call. Gotta go.” And the line went dead.
Who the hell is Taylor?
* * * *
The abruptness with which the call had ended left me worried. It wasn’t the first time my bro had worried me, but this time, I don’t know—call it filial telepathy or something—I could sense there was more to it than he was letting on. He’d suddenly sounded scared. Of course, owing a hundred grand would scare me too. I called him back but his voice mail kicked in right away. I left a message saying to call me back soon as he could.
I pulled up my portfolio on the computer and took a looksee at what I was actually worth. If push came to shove and this guy—whoever he was—reneged on the deal, I, like the good brother I am, might just have to bail Mike out…again. He really is becoming the proverbial douche bag, I thought uncharitably as I gazed at the numbers on the computer screen. Well, certainly short of a hundred thousand. I’d have to sell the two rental properties I owned. They both had mortgages, and time wouldn’t be on our side in a housing market that was still fairly slow, but they were there if needed.
I couldn’t help wondering why this guy, this Good Samaritan, this possible lunatic, had been okay with loaning this huge amount of money on the surety of someone he didn’t know. Was he that loaded that it didn’t matter if he got it back or not? Because if he was depending on Mike to pay it back he was probably fresh out of luck. Most likely Mike had given him the story of my honesty, my integrity, my unfailing devotion to duty when it called, how much I loved my mother—well, Mike loved her too, in his own way, his own totally irresponsible, douche bag way. He had good intentions. But didn’t someone once say the road to hell is paved with those?
Okay, so maybe I’m being harsh, I mused. Mike really isn’t a bad guy. He’s my brother and I love him.
We’d been through a lot together―Mike, me, our sister Linda and our mom. We were tight. We’d had to be in order to survive who the real douche bag of the family was—our father.
Maybe Mike had shown the guy my photograph. People told me I had an honest face. My sister Linda always cracked up whenever I’d mention this, but that’s a big plus in the real estate business, believe me. People have an inbuilt uneasiness around realtors. Lawyers and secondhand car salesmen notwithstanding, we were usually pretty high on the wariness scale of guys to be not too trusting of…of whom to be not too trusting, excuse me. I wasn’t an English major for nothing, you know.
The phone ringing jerked me from my self-aggrandizing thoughts. “Jerry Peterson,” I said, hesitating slightly after not recognizing the number on the caller ID screen.
“Uh, yes, Mr. Peterson…this is Taylor Maitland.” His voice was nice, deep, smooth, not at all like a loan shark should sound. “Your brother, Mike, said you would stand as surety for the money he needs.”
“That’s right.” I hesitated for a moment, then had to ask. “But are you sure you want to do this? I mean, you don’t know me and I’m assuming you don’t know Mike very well…” I didn’t add, ‘Or you wouldn’t even be contemplating this offer’.
“Believe me, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary.”
I groaned. “You know, why don’t we forget this? If Mike can buy some time from the freaks he owes the money to, I think I can come up with enough to satisfy them. At least, close to the amount…I think.”
There was a slight hesitation, then he said, “Well then, there’s no problem. Apart from the one Mike told me about.”
“What problem was that?” I asked, my headache reminding me why I was actually talking to this guy, this Taylor. Oh yeah…the hundred thousand dollars Mike owed in gambling debts.
“I don’t think you understand the gravity of Mike’s situation. There’s a good chance that if he doesn’t pay up by tomorrow, they’ll start by breaking his knees just for fun. Can you raise the money by then?”
“What? He didn’t say anything about that when we spoke earlier.”
“Mr. Peterson…” Now his voice held a noticeable degree of urgency. “They are holding him in a hotel room in Las Vegas. A room he won’t leave if they don’t get their money by Saturday night.”
I felt all the air inside my chest escape in a giant breath of fear mixed with despair, and I slumped deep into the padded leather of my office chair. Jesus, he must have called me from that room and I’d been berating him for being irresponsible and all the while… Mike, how the hell could this have happened?
“Mr. Peterson, are you still there?”
“Yes, yes…I’m here. I’m just a little shocked is all. Who are these people who’re holding him?”
“People your brother borrowed the money from originally. It appears he’s been borrowing from them pretty heavily over the past few months.”
“Wait, how do you know this?” A nasty suspicion had crept into my mind. “Are you—are you one of those people?”
“No, I’m a freelance writer. I’ve been doing some research on compulsive gambling. I met your brother in the casino bar.” I heard the sound of a faint chuckle on the other end, then he said, “I thought he was coming on to me, but he assured me he was straight. Just a friendly kind of guy, I guess.”
“Yeah, that’s Mike, Mr. Friendly.” I couldn’t quite keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “So he tapped you for a hundred grand?”
“No, that’s not how it happened. We’d been talking for a while, then he looked around and acted nervous. He said he was in some trouble and was going to have to leave Vegas that night. I asked him what kind of trouble but he said it was best I didn’t know. I told him I had some experience with ‘Vegas trouble’ because of my dad’s gambling debts.
“He still wouldn’t tell me much but he did say he would call you—maybe you’d help him, like you had in the past. He looked kinda sad. Then he took your business card out and handed it to me. ‘If I don’t make it,’ he said, ‘maybe you could call him? Let him know I really appreciate everything he’s done for me.’ When he got off the stool, he said, ‘By the way, Fairmont’s Hero is a sure thing. I just wish I had the money to put down.’ Then he left.”
“So, that’s it? How d’you know about all the rest?” I asked.
“I was passing the Sports Book section of the casino and I thought, why not? So I placed a bet on Fairmont’s Hero.”
“Oh, you’re a gambler too.”
“No, not at all. It was just pure impulse after what Mike had said. I don’t know how he got the information because the odds against the horse winning were high, but it won and I walked away with a lot of money.”
“Congratulations,” I said, not feeling at all celebratory. “Mind if I ask how much?”
“One hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. Because it was a long shot, the bookies were offering triple odds right up to starting time.”
Holy shit! “That’s amazing, and all because of Mike’s tip.”
“That’s right, and of course I felt that I should let him know and offer to share it with him.”
“You did? Then why…?”
“That’s the bit that stinks. I went hunting for Mike and finally caught up with him in the lobby. He was with two big guys…huge guys, and I could just tell from the look of them they were not friends of his. He looked positively shaken up and his eyes were pleading with me to do something to help.”
“But what could you do?” In my mind’s eye, I could see that if he’d tried to intervene the situation could have turned ugly.
“I kinda bluffed my way into a conversation, talking about the gambling article I was writing and could I have a few more minutes of Mike’s time.”
“That was clever.” I found myself warming to the guy.
“Only it didn’t work right away. One of the big bozos said they had business with Mike and no time for chit-chatting—he actually used that expression. I said it was important, the other bozo, even bigger with a massively thick neck, said ‘fuck off’ and started to pull Mike away. Mike looked like he was going to faint, so I said could I then wait for their business to be over so I could talk to Mike after.”
“You’ve got balls,” I exclaimed and really meant it. “You know the kind of men these loan sharks are?”
“Oh yes,” Taylor said, “only too well. See, my father was a gambler. He got in over his head and…well, that’s why I’ve done so much research about the compulsive side of it. Seems to me Mike has the same problem as my dad.”
I was nodding my head as if he could hear it rattle. Doofus. “Yeah, I’ve asked him to quit but he just won’t listen. He has it bad. So, did they let you talk to him?”
“Finally, when they realized I was a pain in the ass enough to follow them to the elevator and keep pestering them about the article I’m writing.”
“You’re lucky they didn’t grab you too.”
“Guess so. Anyway, they said two minutes and it was enough time for Mike to tell me what was going on. I let him know about our win and that I’d split it with him, but he said, unfortunately, it wasn’t enough—he needed a hundred thousand to satisfy the debt. That’s when he said you might act as surety if I’d give him the money as a loan. I told him that wasn’t necessary, but—and this is just a gut feeling, you understand—I think what he really wanted was for you to know the trouble he was in and for you to come help him.”
I let that sink in for a moment or two. Mike really was in trouble, and not just the financial kind. He could end up with broken legs just like I’d joked about earlier—and now I felt like a heel. God, Mike—why?
“So, what’s the next step?” I asked, pretty much subdued by the situation Taylor had laid out. “I sign the surety and you pay the bozos?”
“You don’t have to sign anything, Mr. Peterson.”
“Call me Jerry, Taylor. I figure anyone who’s willing to put themselves on the line for my brother as much as you are, I should be on first name terms with.”
“How soon can you be in Vegas?” he asked.
I hate that place. I know, I know, everyone thinks I’m nuts. ‘How can you hate such a fabulous place?’ they ask. ‘You can stay in a hotel with the Eiffel Tower, or Pyramids, or the canals of Venice, see the best shows and, blah, blah, blah’. Right, and you can also lose your life savings and have to bail out your compulsive gambling brother every few months. No thanks. I hate the place.
Taylor must have taken my long silence as a negative. “You can’t get here?” He sounded surprised. “Well, I guess I could come to San Diego—Mike told me that’s where you live—but it would be easier if you came here, and I thought you’d like to make sure he’s okay after we manage to get him out of this fix.”
I sighed. I was feeling guilty enough without him sounding like everyone’s knight in shining armor. “Okay, I’ll drive up there.”
“Flying would be quicker.”
I didn’t have to even think before I responded. “Not really, what with the delays and everything. I can make it in just over four hours by car.”
“Okay. I have a room at the Royal Monaco with two queen-size beds. You’re welcome to stay over if you like. Mike too, if we can get him away from the vultures tonight.”
The thought of spending the night in Vegas with a total stranger and my brother sharing two beds was not high on my list of ‘must-do’s’ but he was being nice, so I replied gruffly, “That’s good of you, but hopefully we can get it all squared away so I can make the return trip a quick one.”
“Oh…” Was I imagining it, or did he sound disappointed? “Well, okay. I’ll see you in a few hours then.”
“Right. Meet me in the hotel lobby? Wear a red bowtie or something so I’ll know it’s you.”
He chuckled. “I’ll be wearing a blue polo and khaki shorts. I’m six feet and have blond hair. Good enough?”
Very good…just my type.
“Uh, yeah. I’ll find you. By the way, you’re being very trusting. How do you know I won’t just take your money and head for the hills, kind of thing?”
He chuckled again. “Your photograph is on your business card. You have an honest face.”
* * * *
As nice as Taylor had sounded, I couldn’t quite get over my pique at Mike. He’d done this so many times, sometimes relying on his wives to bail him out—ex-wives now, which had left me as the go-to-guy for funds. I couldn’t quite get it. Apart from his gambling sickness, Mike was a decent guy. I’d really liked Maggie, his first wife, and it seemed—to me at any rate—that they’d been happy together. They’d even talked about starting a family.
In hindsight, it was good they didn’t get any further than the talk. Sharon, Mike’s second wife who I didn’t even have time to get to know at all well, had been in and out of the marriage so fast. She had called Mom and me to let us know it was over. Mike had been in Vegas at the time—no big surprise—and had come back to an empty apartment.
I’d thought that perhaps the shock of having his second wife leave him for the same reason Maggie had left might just have given him the impetus to get his life together and quit gambling. It didn’t. Even Mom’s tough talking hadn’t slowed him down. He’d promised her he’d try, but a week later he was back in Sin City throwing away his hard-earned cash. The irony of it all was that Mike’s career as a financial consultant had been doing well and he was highly thought of by the company bosses. He’d even sent a couple of his clients to me when they’d expressed interest in purchasing real estate.
But all that went up in smoke when his compulsion took over. He’d been fired for taking too much time off without prior notice, for disappearing for days on end without letting anyone know where he was. He was sick and making all of us sick along with him. Mom worried he’d get himself into huge amounts of debt, which was exactly what he’d done. And now it had all caught up with him. I wasn’t about to tell Mom about this latest disaster. I’d wait till it was all taken care of then tell her…maybe.